Is California the new Brooklyn? Genuine Roadside is the third California concept restaurant that I’ve reviewed this year. This casual cafe, which occupies a space in Gotham West Market, is meant to evoke the coastal roadside diner experience, only this trip is much more airbrushed. The space looks like an architecture firm’s idea of what a California diner looks like–clean and airy, with interesting consumer relics from the 80s like cassette players and mix tapes artfully placed on wood shelves. It’s a far cry from the Denny’s and Carrows that I frequented on our family road trips, that’s for sure.
Similarly, the food is a highly sanitized and refined rendition of California diner grub. You’ll find fish tacos and ahi burgers, but they’re much healthier (and pricier) than something you’d find in the deep fryer or the grill of a hole-in-the-wall joint. I tried the ahi tartare tacos, which went too far down the path of healthy editing that they had been stripped entirely of flavor. The fried chicken suffered from a similarly unfortunate edit. All the trappings of a good chicken sandwich were there–juicy, tender, a perfectly breaded crust–but they were arranged and bound by a bland sauce, which is key for creating that chemistry that leaves you wanting more. When I heard the shrimp and grits was one of Genuine’s strengths, I was a bit skeptical, as I’m sure the soul would have gone missing from this archetypal soul food dish.
The restaurant succeeds when it cooks something that truly resembles diner food. The classic burger was delicious in a traditional way, reminding me of the burgers at Shake Shack and In-N-Out. This being airbrushed diner food, the burger of course wasn’t nearly as fatty and greasy as the ones from the latter, but it would satisfy you just the same. The healthiness of the sweet potato fries actually worked in their favor. They weren’t overburdened with grease, they were crisp and willowy, and somehow you didn’t feel bad for eating half the basket, which is a big win.
After eating my ensalada baja chicken salad, which was quite filling and wholesome, I was feeling healthy, but all those fresh leaves and jicama and orange slices left me hungry. So of course it made total sense to walk over to Ample Hills, also in Gotham West Market, and split 6 different scoops of ice cream with our friends. No road trip is complete without an ice cream pit stop. If you want to know which flavors to get–the butter pecan, amazing, the strawberries and cream, superb, and the blueberry sorbet, refreshing.
600 11th Ave (between 44th and 44th St)
New York, NY 10036
Life’s a beach in California, literally if you’re in Venice. Venice Beach is the California that you see in the movies. Tan, fit people making their way down the boardwalk, stopping at a bar to grab a drink or two outside, or perhaps meeting with a spiritual healer to feel more centered. Nearby is a skate park where skaters, real ones who’ve been living and breathing this lifestyle for decades, not the millennial wannabes who crash into you on the street, are doing some fancy tricks to earn some cash. Seriously, buy a postcard of California somewhere, hold it up against Venice, and the two backdrops will look exactly the same.
A few blocks away from the boardwalk is Abbot Kinney Blvd., a picturesque street that is home to interesting boutiques and good restaurants. Intelligentsia and Blue Bottle are both here, but if you want a different caffeine option, try the vegan bullet proof Buttery Brew coffee at Another Kind of Sunrise. It’s an intensely rich brew consisting of raw coconut oil, grass fed ghee and organic coffee that makes you feel like you’re drinking the foamy fat that you skim off the top of soups. Not really my cup of tea. Or coffee.
Where you get your coffee is open to discussion, but your brunch option definitely is not. Without question, you must go to Gjelina, one of the best farm-to-table, seasonal American restaurants that I’ve ever been to. This is the restaurant that makes New Yorkers jealous of LA. The location is prime, the outdoor premises are beautiful, and most importantly, the food is incredible. They absolutely kill it here with the pizzas. The extremely fresh seasonings are literally straight from the farmers market, as was the case with the squash blossoms on our pizza, the cheese is so creamy, and the crust has the perfect chewy, blistery texture about it. I’d also highly recommend the braised pork meatballs, which arrived plump and simmering in a thick and tangy tomato sauce, well seasoned and perfectly crumbly. You can’t have a bad meal here, just sit back, have a beer, and let Gjelina do all the heavy lifting for you. And maybe you might consider moving here permanently so that you can live, and eat, the dream, everyday.
Jack’s Wife Freda is perennially mobbed at brunch. The several times I attempted to put my name down for a table, I was always quoted a wait time of at least an hour. You either have to come here on the early side, say 11 or 11:30, or you should try to visit when the rest of the city empties out for the holidays.
I’m not surprised by how popular this place is. The atmosphere here really can’t be beat, especially during the summer months. They open up the front doors and set up tables on the sidewalk so that you can enjoy some al fresco dining. It’s fun and lively, trendy without being annoyingly sceney, and the Mediterranean food is varied and tasty. You can bring anyone here, friends, dates, family members, and everyone will feel relaxed and have a good time. The matzo ball soup is fantastic, as is the tuna salad. If you want something more traditional, the poached eggs with grilled tomato and haloumi is a good choice.
I always like ordering something sweet like pancakes or waffles for the table, and on this particular visit, we split an order of the rosewater waffle. The waffle is a little softer than what you’d expect, more l’eggo my eggo than straight out of the waffle iron, and it comes with a dollop of lebanese yogurt, a different take on the whipped cream we’re accustomed to, but just as rich and full.
As an fyi, Jack’s Wife Freda is one of my favorite go-to’s for a group dinner. The scene is just as laid back and lively, and they take reservations for groups of 6 or larger, which isn’t too hard to get. It does get a little bit loud in the pm, but the service is good, and once you have some wine in you, you just kind of roll with it and it’s all good.
Jack’s Wife Freda
224 Lafayette St (between Spring and Broome St)
New York, NY 10012
I also have a quick update on the new Dimes restaurant that opened up on Canal St. I wrote about the healthy, California cafe last year, which I was a big fan of, and I was curious to see how things had changed in the bigger space. It is slightly bigger in size but not by much, still lovely and beachy white inside, and while it can accommodate more people, there’s still going to be a wait. The wait times are never too bad, though, maybe 35 minutes for a table of two. The service, on the other hand, is horrible. Expect sourpuss waitresses to mix up your order and move you to another table 35 minutes into your meal with no apologies. Let me tell you, in California, everyone is smiley and bubbly, so while the food at Dimes is California-inspired, the service definitely is not.
The menu seems to have expanded a bit. The nori wraps look new, as do the cactus pitaya bowls. I tried the sayonara summer tacos, which were surprisingly bland. Eggs and salsa are some of my favorite things, but these tacos lacked the spice I wanted, even with the extra hot sauce that was brought to the table. I also ordered the big salad, which was literally a huge bowl of raw greens lightly dressed in a rosemary balsamic dressing. I wasn’t expecting the salad to be so nakedly fresh, as if the vegetables were just plucked from the garden. I would have preferred some cooked veggies in the mix, especially the brussels sprouts, because otherwise it was a little too green and wholesome and crunchy. I would definitely recommend the hash, which was a wonderfully hearty concoction of spiced vegetables and black rice, filling without being fatty. Stick to the their famous sweet and savory bowls, don’t expect too much from the service, and you’ll have a decent time.
49 Canal St (between Orchard and Ludlow St)
New York, NY 10002
It’s been a crazy winter in New York. We’re already into March, yet the snow continues to fall and the temperatures continue to drop. I’m so over the slush and snow, and I can feel the mutual pent up frustration of others around me.
Which is why I love hanging out at El Rey Coffee Bar & Luncheonette, because for a moment I can trade in the weather-induced anxiety for some laid-back California calm. Everyone here is very friendly, which is impressive, as the tiny cafe usually gets packed, but instead of losing their cool, the staff cheerfully tells you that things will be ok. If space permits, you can find seats in the very back by the small but functional kitchen, where you can watch Chef Gerardo Gonzalez create his wholesome, vegetable-driven small plates. Not surprisingly, he’s also a very nice guy who’s happy to tell you what’s in his green mole sauce (answer: everything under the sun that’s green) or to give you wine pairing recommendations (the sparkly Macabeo white was a good call).
What brings me back to El Rey repeatedly is the kale salad. With so much kale all over the place, I’m sure the trend for this superfood is probably on the outs, but El Rey’s version is a classic that should persevere when the fad fades. Almond is the key ingredient here that helps to differentiate the kale salad. Many places rely on heavy shavings of parmesan cheese to add depth to kale, but El Rey uses almond shavings instead. It’s an ingenious way of adding some weight to your leafy greens in a more healthful way. The vinaigrette dressing is a great blend of tangy, sour and sweet, adding a nice spring to your salad step. In the am you have the option of adding pickled or poached eggs–I would highly recommend the pickled eggs, if only for their bright pink color.
Any coffee bar worth its weight should have a selection of tantalizing baked goods, and El Rey doesn’t disappoint. I tried slices of the sesame banana and the sweet potato bread, both very good, but the sweet potato was divine. It was extremely moist with the right amount of sweet, and with the candied nuts on top, you almost felt like you were eating a slice of pecan pie.
With such a great breakfast and lunch menu, I returned to try out the dinner service, which was introduced just a few weeks ago. The coffee bar is less packed in the evening, as I’m sure not that many people know about the full dinner menu, and also most would prefer a guaranteed seat rather than risking the wait for one of the very few bar stools (I would guess there are roughly 15 spots).
With dinner, El Rey assumes more of a Baja California vibe. While Latin music plays in the background, Gonzalez starts cranking out funky tapas with flavors that are a little more spirited and in-your-face, and the heat factor really gets turned up. As an example, the sweet and sour papas bravas at first seemed deceptively mild, and the potatoes appeared to be coated in a harmless ketchup-like BBQ sauce. But then gradually the heat built, and I was taken by surprise by the tingling, fiery sensations coating my mouth.
Similarly, the chorizo was heavily spiced, absent the burning heat. I’m not totally sure what was in the marinade, but I could taste something like cumin and vinegar packed into every part of the chorizo sausage. If you ate the meat by itself, it would have been like eating a slice of pepperoni, which would be intense. Luckily the sweet roasted garlic cloves and the hazelnuts provided balance, as did the focaccia bread, although you could never quite shake off the presence of the marinade.
I preferred when the flavors were scaled back a little bit, more in tune with the tone set at breakfast and lunch. The sardines on tostada were fantastic–it featured such great textures and a good balance of flavors that were overall refreshing, never veering into salty, fishy territory as sardines tend to do, and not falling back on tons of rich aioli or a heavy poblano to cover things up.
The green mole burrata similarly impressed me with a complexity that still felt bright and clear. You could taste so many of the different herbs that had gone into the mole sauce, yet the multitude of ingredients served to enhance the mild burrata rather than overwhelming it.
The shaved cauliflower was probably the lightest and most wholesome small plate of the night, but that didn’t mean it was boring. The thin slices of raw cauliflower were coated in a bright vinaigrette, which again exhibited the distinctive qualities of sweet, sour and tangy. Cauliflower’s cruciferous qualities naturally provided the dish with a lot of fibrous bulk, but the poached egg softened the edges so that things didn’t feel too raw and crudite-like, and it felt like a proper appetizer.
After dinner is over, I would suggest that you take a short walk to Morgenstern’s, an ice cream shop whose owner is a partner at El Rey Coffee Bar. Even though it’s freezing out, the ice cream here is so good that it’s worth the trip. The raw milk in particular is outstanding–I’ve never had a vanilla flavor feel so creamy, rich and genuinely pure. They also offer ice cream breakfasts, which is an intriguing thought, and whether you take them up on it or not, a meal at El Rey or Morgenstern’s is always worth the gamble.
El Rey Coffee Bar & Luncheonette
100 Stanton St (between Orchard and Ludlow St)
New York, NY 10002
Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream
2 Rivington St (between Bowery and Chrystie St)
New York, NY 10002